Have you ever looked around you at the posture, gait and movement of others? Sometimes this is a good learning opportunity. While pain relief can require postural change at any age, a great time to start thinking seriously about your posture is actually in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Beyond this age range, depending on your level of fitness and activity, correcting the shortening of contractile (muscles, tendons) and non-contractile soft tissues (joint capsules, ligaments, discs) can require more extensive treatment, or can at times be irreversible.
This is the Part 1 in a series of posts about the Aging Process, from our clinical perspective, and based on our treatment experience. Subsequent articles in this series may include a more in depth review of topics in Part 1, and discussion of the effects of aging on other regions of the body. To begin, let’s talk about the Spine:
Above are examples of disc pathologies that can develop when vertebral discs lose structural integrity, often as a result of repetitive strain, trauma or predisposition to injury as a result of postural strain. As well, flexibility of the spine decreases as discs are compressed and vertebrae are approximated. Disc compression also decreases the space available for spinal nerve roots as they exit the spinal cord and blend together to form peripheral nerves to supply the motor, sensory and autonomic functions throughout your body. Compression of these nerve roots will effect their function, either diminishing or increasing nerve signals beyond normal signal conduction. Alignment and support through muscle strength in each region of the spine is key to maintaining length and avoiding disc degeneration.
As posture deteriorates, and centre of gravity changes, so too does the weight of the head that the spine must bear. Initially, this will present as chronic tightening in the muscles of the neck and shoulders, a forward head position and shoulder rotation, with excessive rounding (hyperkyphosis) of the upper back. Similarly, excessive weight in the abdominal region, combined with a lack of core strength, will place an increased load on the lumbar spine (low back), pelvis and sacroiliac (SI) joints. This presents as tight muscles in the lower back and hip flexors, along with adhesions and trigger points in the gluteal muscles and deeper external hip rotators (such as piriformis) due to strain and anterior pelvic tilt. As these posterior hip muscles remain chronically tight and strained, there is often compression of the sciatic nerve, which results in pain down the back of the leg, and even into the foot.
Significant loss of height can indicate disc compression and degeneration. Balance becomes an issue as the centre of gravity changes. Many canes are not set to the proper height for the individual using them, which can result in a lateral lean and shortening of the musculature on one side of the body, as well as joint strain. Walkers are a great tool for elderly people who can no longer maintain proper balance on their own, and who run the risk of falling.
However, we caution people about relying on them too soon, as a walker can then take the place of postural muscle strength. This can become an irreversible loss. Additionally, walkers must be set to the correct height so that the patient does not have to lean forward (as above) to use them as a support. Too much forward flexion will strain the shoulder joints, and upper back, as well as shortening the hip flexors which will make it difficult to return to a straight position in standing. Nordic walking or Trekking poles are a good option for seniors with mild balance concerns, but who still maintain good posture and mobility.
A loss in height can also indicate Osteoporosis, which is a decrease in bone density as the bone becomes more porous. This is usually a result of inadequate calcium supply in the bones. Your muscles use calcium when they contract, and if your dietary sources are lacking, the stores of calcium in your bones will not be maximal. Other causes of Osteoporosis can include various pathologies (autoimmune, digestive and hormonal disorders, etc), or it may result from the side effects of some medications. A bone scan is required for diagnosis. Weight lifting and resistance strengthening exercises are the best way to increase bone strength, as bone lays down calcium and new bone growth along lines of stress.
Good posture begins when you are young, and is necessary to sustain optimal physical fitness and function as you age. At any age, if you are experiencing restriction in an area of your back, shoulders, neck, hips, or peripheral joints, our experienced RMT’s can assess and work to correct these imbalances, giving you the freedom to move, strengthen and support your body for ideal health and longevity. Start today!
Kaity Weichel, RMT, D.Ac.